Changing Workplace Culture For Improved Safety Performance

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Safety professionals reviewing a planGood safety practices come as a result of more than an occasional on-site training meeting or safety memo. The best corporate safety performance is derived from consistent safety practices throughout the chain of command and an overarching dedication to a workplace culture that values health and safety.

Workplace culture is characterized by shared beliefs, traditions, attitudes, and values that define and guide a company and its members. An organization’s culture is something that grows over time, organically changing as employees and managers interact with each other and outside business associates. Safety culture refers to how a company pursues and implements safety performance solutions.

Any truly successful company culture that focuses on safety performance depends on leaders who are committed to prioritizing safety in everyday transactions, according to patient safety experts with the Joint Commission healthcare accreditation organization.

“Effective leaders who deliberately engage in strategies and tactics to strengthen their organization’s safety culture see safety issues as problems with organizational systems, not their employees, and see adverse events and close calls (‘near misses’) as providing ‘information-rich’ data for learning and systems improvement,” Joint Commission experts said in a safety advisory.

As safety experts and leaders, graduates of Eastern Kentucky University’s (EKUs) online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety (BSOS) program understand the role safety performance plays in workplace culture and how to design and implement a culture of safety.  With a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety, safety professionals can enact changes in workplaces for safety performance solutions. 

Barriers To Improving Safety Performance

Sociologists, safety experts, and other professionals agree that cultural factors in the workplace can lead to an increased likelihood of hazardous practices. The National Safety Council said successful safety development relies on all members of an organization buying into changes and overcoming some of the common barriers, which include the following:

Normalization of deviance

In 1996, sociologist Diane Vaughan developed the theory of “normalization of deviance” in her book The Challenger Launch Decision. The book examined the events that led up to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, which killed all seven crew members. NASA investigators found a series of poor decisions led to the explosion. Vaughan said NASA leaders knew about the problems with the shuttle before the doomed launch, but they were able to justify skirting safety rules they had done so without incident in the past. Sidestepping the rules had become so normalized that few questioned the decisions.

“Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviation that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety,” Vaughan said in her book.


Normalization of deviance can lead to groupthink, which happens when a group of people think and act in a coordinated manner, shunning dissenting views and ideas. Members of the group are compliant with group decisions, so they do not create strife or conflict.

When psychologist Irving Janis coined the phrase “groupthink” in 1972, he outlined several indicators of the theory, including an illusion of invulnerability, rationalizing away serious problems, and stereotyping other groups as an enemy.


In 2017, former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Robert Sumwalt said the leading concern for airline safety was complacency because it can cloud vigilance. 

Complacency can occur when workers engage in routine tasks that they’ve successfully completed dozens, or even hundreds, of times. When complacent, workers pay little to no attention to the work at hand or surrounding environment, taking shortcuts and unnecessary risks.

Unwritten rules

Most workplaces have a set of written rules crafted by a human resources department that explains what is expected of employees. At the same time, a set of unwritten rules is derived from company culture and social norms.

Business consultant and author Rodger Dean Duncan said unwritten rules about safety could have a profound impact on employee performance. Duncan used the example of a company touting employee safety as a top priority “while schedule and budget seem to get the most emphasis.”

Unclear roles and responsibilities

When there is a lack of commitment and a resistance to change from the top leadership, individuals are less likely to buy into changes. Clear roles must be established and upheld for a successful safety culture to take root.

The National Safety Council recommends creating a safety team that consists of all levels of management and employees to implement changes. The management teams must be responsible for championing the safety efforts.

The human factor

Despite the most carefully made plans, people still have accidents at work. The reason is the human factor, or the fact that people are not perfect and will make mistakes. The human factor is defined as the “interaction of individuals with each other, with equipment and facilities, and with management systems” and is characterized by how the interactions are influenced by the work environment and company culture, risk managers from DuPont Sustainable Solutions said.

Studies show that workplace injuries occur the most when tasks are perceived to be low risk. The more employees can get away with unsafe behaviors without injury, the more they deem it a safe behavior.

“If the behavior was associated with a forecast benefit that was realized, you are now at odds with actual experience; a hurdle in which logic and reason alone will have limited success,” DuPont Sustainable Solutions said.

Poor individual attitudes

Fear, mistrust, uncertainty and a general resistance to change may hinder efforts to enhance safety performance. Employees may resist change unless it is presented in a way that offers individual incentives. A top-down approach to change can supersede a climate of fear and mistrust and demonstrate the positive impacts of safety improvements.

The National Safety Council said the best way to combat poor attitudes toward safety is to become a strong advocate for safety, including modeling good behavior.

Lack of proper training

Inadequate training and assigning too much responsibility to one person or group can quickly disintegrate any efforts to implementing a new system. When training a team, allow for plenty of time for people to change their old habits and ask questions.

The National Safety Council suggests safety experts use employees as the front-line safety advocates and ensure that the workers know exactly what is expected of them. The cost of training will go a long way toward instilling confidence.

System deficiencies

When there is too much or too little structure, a lack of positive attention given to the improvements, and a failure to communicate the changes, the system can fail even before it starts.

The National Safety Council suggests safety experts implement a system that is individualized and personalized to the business and recognize employees for embracing safety improvements.

To successfully overcome the barriers to optimal safety performance, safety professionals must understand the hurdles and look ahead.

Leading Vs. Lagging: Indicators For Successful Safety Measures

In any business, whether it’s a major petrochemical company or a mom-and-pop hardware store, key performance indicators (KPI) help managers gauge function and performance with an end goal of success.

In safety, KPIs, which are measured in lagging and leading indicators, are used to collect data, communicate information and implement procedural changes. Lagging indicators are reactive and measure historic data such as injury statistics, workers’ compensation claims, and regulatory fines. Leading indicators take a forward-looking approach by using information from behavioral observations, safety meetings, and employee-perception surveys.

While lagging indicators are commonly used to examine safety metrics, they fail to show how well a company’s safety plan is progressing. Since lagging indicators are reactionary by nature, they may allow managers to become complacent and put a lesser emphasis on safety.

The predictive nature of leading indicators focuses on safety improvements because they provide advance warning of potential problems, researchers at the Campbell Institute said. Leading indicators also reveal organizational weaknesses before real harm can happen, researchers said.

The Campbell Institute, the research arm of the National Safety Council, said all leading indicators fall into one of three categories:

  1. Behavioral-based indicators examine the behaviors and actions of groups of people or individuals in the workplace.
  2. Operations-based indicators look at the functions of a company’s infrastructure and equipment.
  3. Systems-based indicators examine a company’s safety management systems.

The institute also said leading KPIs must have the following eight characteristics for success:

  1. Actionable – The KPI can be used to implement steps to reduce or eliminate safety hazards.
  2. Achievable – The information must be attainable and easily measured.
  3. Meaningful – The information must be useful.
  4. Transparent – The information must be easy to understand by everyone involved.
  5. Easy to communicate – The information should be easy to distribute to everyone in the company.
  6. Valid – The information must be correct.
  7. Useful – The information must serve a meaningful purpose toward the organization’s objectives.
  8. Timely – The information is relevant to the organization and the employees. 

A 2017 survey of safety professionals by EHS Today found a majority of respondents track leading indicators to measure and improve safety. The most commonly tracked leading indicators are:

  • Employee audits/observations – 82.2 percent of respondents
  • Participation in safety training – 81 percent
  • Near-misses – 81 percent
  • Inspections and their results – 78 percent
  • Participation in safety meetings – 66 percent
  • Participation in safety committees – 64 percent
  • Facility housekeeping – 62 percent
  • Safety action plans and their execution – 57 percent
  • Overall employee engagement in safety – 56 percent
  • Equipment/machinery maintenance – 55 percent
  • Safety perception surveys, their results and subsequent follow-ups – 36 percent
  • Permit deviations – 23 percent 

Creating A Culture Of Safety

The EHS Today survey also found that companies are putting a greater emphasis on safety. About 82 percent of respondents said management provides active and visible support for safety efforts and about 71 percent said their budgets have increased from 2016.

Experts recommend safety professionals continue their efforts to bring safety to the forefront and promote four essential values as the core of a safety culture:


“Safety first” should be the mantra in any organization at all times, not just when it is convenient. Top management must recognize and reward employees who are accountable for safety measures in both their actions and communications.


The most successful companies integrate safety into their operations and create a formal process that does not encourage cutting corners and breaking the rules. Managers should hold employees accountable for deviation from the rules.


Safety-first companies do not wait for injuries and accidents to happen. They should use proactive (leading) indicators to avoid problems.


Employees should not just be part of the safety culture. Employees should be the safety culture by being active participants in hazard prevention.

For aspiring safety professionals, the key to creating a culture of safety is by pursuing a bachelor degree in occupational health and safety that will promote professional growth and deep understanding of the field.

Through EKU’s Online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety, graduates learn about the role occupational safety plays in the workplace and how to identify and eliminate hazards and risks. Online courses in health and safety provide a strong foundation for growth in the field.

About Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Bachelor Of Science In Occupational Safety

Students enrolled in the EKU online bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety learn advanced-level safety performance solutions that prepare them for careers in the public and private sector. The university’s faculty members are industry leaders who are committed to preparing the next generation of safety experts.

The program’s online courses for health and safety allows students to continue their home and career responsibilities while earning an advanced degree. For more information, contact EKU now.

Recommended Reading

Why Earn A Bachelor’s Degree In Occupational Safety?
The 5 Steps of Threat Analysis
3 Examples of OSHA Enforcing Safety Regulations 2017


Joint Commission, “The essential role of leadership in developing a safety culture” (PDF), “The Cost of Silence: Normalization of Deviance and Groupthink”
JDA Journal, Airline Operations: Complacency Can Cloud Vigilance
Forbes, “Culture at Work: The Tyranny of ‘Unwritten Rules'”
National Safety Council, “4 Barriers to an Effective Company Safety Culture”, “Using Leading and Lagging Indicators to Track Safety Performance”
Ergonomics Plus, A Short Guide to Leading and Lagging Indicators of Safety Performance
EHS Today, National Safety Survey